• July 21, 2014 3:34 PM

Death of 15-year old Worker in Drumheller Tragic Reminder of Alberta's Unsafe Work Laws

Alberta remains one of the most dangerous places in Canada to work, especially for young workers: AFL

EDMONTON, July 21, 2014 /CNW/ - The Alberta Federation of Labour is responding to Saturday's death of a 15-year-old worker. Alberta's child, youth, and adolescent labour laws are among the worst in Canada, says the AFL. The province had a chance to toughen up those standards in a recent Employment Standards review, but nothing came of it.

"Alberta's child labour laws are among the most lax in Canada," says Siobhan Vipond, AFL Secretary Treasurer. "The AFL has repeatedly made recommendations to improve working conditions and safety standards, specifically for young workers. This weekend's tragic news is yet another reminder that much more needs to be done to keep Albertans safe at work."

"Just a few months ago, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk launched a review of Alberta's workplace laws. But the first item up for review was a question about expanding child labour," says Vipond. "Instead of rushing more young workers onto potentially unsafe work sites, we need to keep young workers safe. Today, Alberta is one of the most unsafe places for young people to work."

The AFL's submission on April 11, 2014 to the Employment Standards contained several pages of recommendations on young workers.

"Alberta needs targeted inspections of workplaces that employ 15-17 year olds, especially in construction and other comparatively dangerous occupations," says Vipond. "The AFL made urgent recommendations earlier this year, and this past weekend we are sadly reminded why these changes are so desperately needed in Alberta."

A recent survey showed 49.7% of 797 adolescents surveyed had experienced at least one workplace injury in the previous year.

For 15-17 year olds, the research has shown young, minor workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses in the workplace, such as illegal deductions, unsafe work, handling of hazardous materials, and sexual harassment.

For that reason, the AFL recommended a program of targeted inspections and a special, mandated health and safety training programme for employers who hire 15-17 year old Albertans. Alberta must also review whether some industrial activities or occupations are prohibited for adolescents, particularly in forklift operations and construction work.

Backgrounder

Alberta Federation of Labour Submission to Employment Standards Review, May 2014

Employment of 12-14 year old children and adolescents

The Alberta Federation of Labour is alarmed that the first item of business for the Minister responsible for Labour is to float a trial balloon on the expansion of child labour via this Review process. We believe Albertans will find it alarming, too.

No child should be working with hazardous cleaning chemicals as a janitor or doing light cleaning duties. No child should be working in a restaurant kitchen, either.

In fact, if the Government of Alberta was listening to Albertans, no Alberta child under 15 should be working in a mainstream workplace at all. Full-stop.

In the summer of 2005, there was a massive public outcry over the province's decision to allow 12-14 year olds to work in restaurant kitchens, even working in bar kitchens.

The province had to scale back its original plans for expanding child labour. Rarely has the public spoken so clearly and loudly – especially in the dead of summer – on an issue of public policy.

Despite public opposition, employment of 12-14 year old children was expanded in 2005. Children weren't allowed to work in bar kitchens, but they were allowed to work in regular restaurant kitchens.

In the intervening 9 years, there has been a body of academic research peer-reviewed and published on the subject of Alberta's child and adolescent workers.

Here is a summary of the peer-reviewed academic literature on the subject of child labour in Alberta.1

1.  Interviews with 20 working children or adolescents found most (19 out of 20) experienced Employment Standards violations. These violations included:

a. Working too many hours, most commonly a four-hour shift on a school day.

b. Receiving less than the minimum wage or minimum call-in pay.

c. Working under age or in prohibited occupations or performing prohibited tasks.

d. The majority of adolescents working in restaurants also reported illegal deduction for uniforms and that employers did not provide health and safety hazard assessments.

e. Half of the workers reported multiple violations of employment standards law, although most were unaware that their treatment was illegal - reflecting a limited knowledge of their rights.

2.  Surveys of Alberta children and adolescents in the workforce have found:

a. In 2009, 6.3 per cent of children had jobs - that's 8,200 children aged nine to 11. A total of 78 per cent of the jobs done by children were clearly illegal (i.e.janitorial services). The remainder did jobs such as babysitting and yard work.

b. The same survey found that 26,000 adolescent workers were employed. More than 21 per cent of these 12- to 14-year-olds worked in prohibited occupations (janitorial services, sports teams, working on a golf course). By contrast, 28.6 per cent of jobs appear to be legal types of employment (newspaper delivery, retail sales, restaurants, agriculture). The remaining 50 per cent of jobs again fall into the grey area of babysitting and yard work.2

3. Surveys conducted in Alberta schools have found:

a. Administrative data gathered from 797 adolescents (aged 12-14) and 1187 young persons (aged 15-17) in 2011/12 showed 43.7 percent of adolescents (aged 12-14) and 61.5 percent of young persons (aged 15-17) in Alberta reported employment in 2011/12. Of those employed, 49.7 percent of adolescents and 59.0 percent of young persons reported at least one work-related injury in the previous year. This study also identifies widespread non-reporting of workplace injuries and seemingly ineffective hazard identification and safety training.3

4.  49.7 percent of adolescents reported at least one work-related injury in the previous year. Here is a breakdown of those reports

  • Muscle sprain, strain or tear -  45 reports
  • Laceration  - 111 reports
  • Bruises 105 reports
  • Fractures or dislocations  - 13 reports
  • Burns  - 59 reports
  • Sexual harassment -  9 reports
  • Chemical or biological exposures causing health problems  - 9 reports
  • Other forms of injury  - 10 reports

We believe the system as it stands places young Albertans in vulnerable and potentially dangerous situations. We believe there are inadequate checks to ensure these children are not being exploited.

In 2005, Albertans sent a clear message that they believe 12 years old is too young to work in restaurants. We believe the government has an obligation to hear that message.

There is a qualitative difference between a paper route and a 7-11. There is a difference between babysitting and waiting tables in a busy restaurant or working as cleaning staff. The Code needs to ensure 12 to 14 year olds are not working in a mainstream workplace. The provisions allowing the employment of children under 15 in restaurants, offices and retail stores should be repealed.

Young workers between 15-17 years old

In 2005, the Alberta Federation of Labour recommended no changes to the rules governing young workers. At that time, we found the prohibitions on hours of work – designed to stop work from interfering with school life and periods of rest for young people – to be adequate. We reiterate that position here – we maintain the current restrictions on hours of work for adolescent workers are adequate.

However, we underline that the status quo for conditions of work for many young, minor workers in Alberta is utterly unacceptable and requires changes via the Code and this Employment Standards Review.

There is a body of research that shows young, minor workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses in the workplace. Specifically, illegal deductions, unsafe work, handling of hazardous materials, and sexual harassment are, according to recently published survey data, commonplace in Alberta.

Survey responses from a July 2013 study of Alberta minors in the workplace:

  • I was stuck fencing with a 12-year-old using 5 tonnes of equipment with no way to contact for help. I was the oldest one there. That's retardedly unsafe. (15-year-old male)
  • A manager tried to make me clean blood and I refused saying I could contract AIDS potentially. (15-year-old female)
  • I didn't have proper gear but was given a substitute gear. (15-year-old male)
  • I had my arm sucked into a machine and ripped open from my wrist to my elbow. (16-year-old male)
  • I was throwing the garbage out into the dumpster and liquid got in my eye but luckily a co-worker was around to help me. (16-year-old male)
  • Nail gun to the foot. (13-year-old male)
  • I quit because my supervisors were drinking on the job and leaving me to work the kitchen which I wasn't legally allowed to be in. (Grade 10, female)
  • I was told to do work after passing out. My supervisor said too bad I had a job to do and I said no, I got fired. (16-year-old female)
  • We had no gloves for pulling out poison ivy. (13-year-old male)
  • I fell off a ladder, twisted my ankle pretty bad. But my boss didn't do anything. (14-year-old female)
  • I got told by an employee that everyone does drugs and if I told anyone I would not be allowed to work there in future. (14-year-old female)
  • I got knocked out by a t-bar lift. (14-year-old male)
  • Combine machine lit on fire. (13-year-old male)
  • I mixed the wrong chemicals so we opened the window to let it air out. It is a farm so it is hard not to get hurt. (Male)
  • I was asked to go out on an icy roof and I did because I didn't know if I had to. (Grade 11, male)
  • I stepped on a nail. Now it is recommended to wear boots and there was a huge clean-up. (Grade 11, male)

Employment Standards breaches were commonly referenced in the survey data. Here are some of the responses from young people:

  • They didn't pay me minimum wage and they would tell me to go home early when we weren't busy and not pay me my whole shift and they would call me at the last minute. (Grade 10, female)
  • I did not have any break and it wasn't good with my school. I didn't have much time to study because I had to stay with them late until they close the store. I could not get off work earlier. (17-year-old female)
  • I was getting $9.05 an hour for hostessing (minimum wage is $9.40). It's supposed to be $9.05 an hour for people serving alcohol. And I wasn't serving alcohol. I didn't do anything about it. (15-year-old female)
  • Giving us short notice on our shifts; not giving us overtime pay. I know that my boss takes advantage of us, but I don't think I'd want to stand up to him 'cause then I'd get fired. (Grade 11, female)
  • I was underage, they gave me odd hours… and they wouldn't pay me by the number of hours I worked. (Grade 10, female)
  • On school nights I worked six-hour shifts even though I was only 14 at the time. (Grade 11, female)

What these data show is that 15-17 year old workers are particularly vulnerable to contraventions of the Code.

This does not suggest an awareness campaign for workers. It suggests an utter disregard for the law on the part of employers, and that disregard has very serious consequences for young, minor workers –as serious as injury and sexual violence.

If there is any argument for Employment Standards to be able to initiate investigations, conduct spot inspections of workplaces that employ young people, to be able to issue on-site administrative penalties, and to toughen up prosecutions and fines, it must be these shocking stories from Alberta's teenaged workers under 18.

  • I got sexual harassed (by another store associate) recently and my manager didn't do anything about it. (Grade 11, female)
  • I've never been harassed by the people I work with but I have been sexually harassed by a lot of customers. (Grade 11, female)
  • My manager was hitting on me. (Female)
  • Sexual harassment when I was 13 (by employer). The harassment I didn't realize until a few months ago. (18-year-old female)
  • I had a very sketchy boss. He was way too close and made me extremely uncomfortable. I quit. (16-year-old female)
  • I was at work and one of the older men followed me to the washroom and tickled me then reached up under my shirt and grabbed my boob. I did nothing because I was only nine, so who would have listened to me? (16-year-old female).
  • Verbal harassment towards female workers; manager would call them bitches, etc. (Grade 11, male)4

AFL recommendations on child and young workers

  1. No person under the age of 15 should be allowed to work in a workplace in Alberta, with the exception of newspaper/flyer delivery and babysitting.
  2. Director's permits are an inappropriate mechanism for setting public policy. The Director's ability to issue permits around child and adolescent workers should be revoked.
  3. The provisions for young persons (age 15 to 17) offer an appropriate balance of allowing employment opportunity to high school aged young adults, but with restrictions to ensure their safety and to prevent undermining their education. We propose no change to current provisions
  4. Targeted inspections for industries that hire adolescent workers between 15-17 year olds
  5. Employers must provide a program of special training for 15-17 year olds on safety, harassment, and their rights at work.
  6. The province must issue regulations for dangerous work such as forklift operation and construction work for 15-17 year olds, and employers should be subject to targeted inspections in these industries.

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1 Employment rate surveys were conducted under contract by the University of Alberta Population Research Laboratory in  2008 and 2009. Random sampling of 1,200 homes resulted in statistically generalizable results with an estimated sampling error of 2.8 per cent at the 95-per-cent confidence level. Interviews were conducted with children, adolescents and parents in the spring and summer of 2009. Initial subjects were recruited through newspaper advertisement and handbills and snowball sampling was subsequently used. The results are not statistically generalizable but are analytically generalizable. The principal investigator of the Child Labour study was Bob Barnetson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Labour Studies at  Athabasca University. The study was funded by Athabasca University and the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Survey results have been published in:
Barnetson, B. (2009). The regulation of child and adolescent labour in Alberta. Just Labour. 13. 29-47.
Barnetson, B. (2010). Effectiveness of complaint-driven regulation of child labour in Alberta. Just Labour. 16. 9-24.

2 Ibid.

3 Barnetson, B. (2013). Incidence of work and workplace injury among Alberta teens. Just Labour. 20. 14-31.

4 Ibid.

SOURCE Alberta Federation of Labour

For further information: MEDIA CONTACT: Brad Lafortune, Alberta Federation of Labour at 780.901.1177 (cell) , or via e-mail blafortune@afl.org